MONTPELIER, Vt. (Jan 22, 2019) – A bill introduced in the Vermont House would require police to get a warrant or consent before using information from home surveillance systems such as Amazon Ring.
Rep. Kathryn Webb (D-Shelburne) introduced House Bill 602 (H.602) on Jan. 7. Under the proposed law, police could not use information acquired from a home surveillance system for the purpose of investigating, detecting, or prosecuting a crime without a warrant.
H.602 includes several exceptions to the warrant requirement. Police could use information from a home surveillance system if the homeowner consents to the use of that specific information, for missing persons search and rescue, under judicially approved exceptions to the warrant requirement, and in exigent circumstances. Under the exigent circumstances exception, police would have to get a warrant within 48 hours, and if denied, would be required to immediately destroy all information.
Amazon gives police the potential to gain unlimited access to information gathered by its popular Ring doorbell cameras. The company has partnered with around 700 police departments and provides direct access to surveillance footage through a special “Law Enforcement Neighborhood Portal,” an interactive map that allows officers to request footage directly from camera owners. According to Vox, “Ring users are not required to give video to police and their identities are kept secret, but Amazon has been coaching police on how to more successfully get video from Ring users without a warrant.”
And there is no guarantee that the company won’t eventually allow police to tap into a Ring system without user permission. As Fight for the Future describes it this is an Orwellian nightmare in the making.
Amazon provides police officers with a seamless and easy way to request and store footage from thousands of residents throughout your city, allowing for warrantless surveillance with zero oversight or judicial review.”
The organization warns that with no oversight, these partnerships pose a threat to privacy and civil liberties.
Amazon Vice President of Public Policy Brian Huseman admitted that police can keep videos downloaded from Ring users forever and share them with whomever they please without providing any evidence of a crime. Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) called the lack of privacy and civil rights protections surrounding Ring “nothing short of chilling.”
“If you’re an adult walking your dog or a child playing on the sidewalk, you shouldn’t have to worry that Ring’s products are amassing footage of you and that law enforcement may hold that footage indefinitely or share that footage with any third parties.”
There is also concern about the integration of Ring with facial recognition technology.
A recent report revealed that the federal government has turned state drivers’ license photos into a giant facial recognition database, putting virtually every driver in America in a perpetual electronic police lineup. The revelations generated widespread outrage, but this story isn’t new. The federal government has been developing a massive, nationwide facial recognition system for years. The FBI rolled out a nationwide facial-recognition program in the fall of 2014, with the goal of building a giant biometric database with pictures provided by the states and corporate friends.
Ring cameras could provide yet another avenue to populate facial recognition databases with images.
Passage of H.602 would take the first step and place some restrictions on access to home surveillance systems. Consent to access video footage would no longer be adequate for law enforcement agencies to use information gathered from Ring in Vermont. It would have to get permission to use specific information or get a warrant.
IMPACT ON FEDERAL SURVEILLANCE
The federal government encourages and funds a giant nationwide surveillance net and then taps into the information via fusion centers and the Information Sharing Environment (ISE).
Fusion centers were sold as a tool to combat terrorism, but that is not how they are being used. The ACLU pointed to a bipartisan congressional report to demonstrate the true nature of government fusion centers: “They haven’t contributed anything meaningful to counterterrorism efforts. Instead, they have largely served as police surveillance and information sharing nodes for law enforcement efforts targeting the frequent subjects of police attention: Black and brown people, immigrants, dissidents, and the poor.”
Fusion centers operate within the broader ISE. According to its website, the ISE “provides analysts, operators, and investigators with information needed to enhance national security. These analysts, operators, and investigators…have mission needs to collaborate and share information with each other and with private sector partners and our foreign allies.” In other words, ISE serves as a conduit for the sharing of information gathered without a warrant. Known ISE partners include the Office of Director of National Intelligence which oversees 17 federal agencies and organizations, including the NSA. ISE utilizes these partnerships to collect and share data on the millions of unwitting people they track.
Reports that the Berkeley Police Department in cooperation with a federal fusion center deployed cameras equipped to surveil a “free speech” rally and Antifa counterprotests provided the first solid link between the federal government and local authorities in facial recognition surveillance.
In a nutshell, without state and local cooperation, the feds have a much more difficult time gathering information. Passage of state laws limiting the collection of surveillance data hinders the federal surveillance state. If there is no data gathered, it can’t be stored in federal databases.
H.602 was referred to the House Committee on Judiciary where it must pass by a majority vote before moving forward in the legislative process.
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